The Distracted Generation

Jason Fertig

On 2/4, I explored the addictive properties of students’ internet behavior.  Admittedly, most of what I wrote in that essay was based on my own firsthand observations in the classroom.  I was surprised at the difficulty that I had in finding detailed literature on how the internet was changing us.  Was I just a little too eccentric in believing that not all technological change yields positive results?  After all, I still shave my face with an 80-year old double edge safety razor as opposed to the latest multi-blade contraption that will also pump up my car’s flat tire.

Two weeks after my essay was published on NAS, I finally came across the book I was searching for – The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.  Carr argues that prolonged internet use can rewire the functioning of the human brain, and he questions whether that change is positive.  The book is a quick read that mixes historical narratives of technological change (e.g. Socrates questioning the benefits of the printed word over listening to dialogue) with the author’s own experiences in handling such innovations.

The Shallows drew me in because much of what Carr observed in himself are behaviors that I also battle.  I wholeheartedly identify with Carr when he states:

Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going – so far as I can tell – but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.  I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.  The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr’s thesis does have several critics.  For one thing, the internet is a medium, not a message.  For another, no one forces a person to go online.  And some argue that so much material readily searchable on the internet frees an individual from rote learning and allows the mind to focus on deeper thoughts.

He articulately defends his position against all of these critiques.  While using the internet is a conscious decision, that decision is increasingly made for many individuals because of the prominent role that the net takes in their lives.  A large portion of the workforce has to go online because their jobs require it.

Plus, online activity is now the standard bearer for certain activities.  When we want to know a phone number, we don’t look for a phone book, we Google it. When we want to wish a friend a happy birthday, we post it on his Facebook wall or send an e-Card.  When we apply for a job, we email a resume and cover letter rather than mailing them.  Operating with slower media creates risks that range from being labeled an old fogey to missing an opportunity due to the speed of information transfer.

The argument about the internet freeing our memory is tempting, but Carr dispels the talking points for that camp.  First, our brains are not hard drives with finite storage space; we are constantly adding to our collection of memories, even if we do forget some.  Furthermore, failing to learn the accomplishments of Winston Churchill because they are easily acquired on Wikipedia is not a perfect correlation to using a calculator for simple computations in order to perform a faster regression analysis.  In the calculator example, one analytic brain function is replaced with another one.  In the Churchill example, something (knowledge of Churchill’s life) is replaced with nothing. 

Carr put on paper what I have been concerned with for a while.  Unconstrained internet use taxes the working memory to the point that it becomes overloaded.  In academic circles, we throw around this notion when we advocate that students can only handle 2-4 major points in a given class period, thus lecturing topic after topic will force brains to shut down due to cognitive overload.

What is it like when the brain is given 2-4 points in 10 seconds?  This is precisely what concerns Carr when he writes that an assortment of links and videos on a given page distracts a reader from the central text on that page.  Those links ask the brain to make a decision about whether to click them.  While the decision can be tackled in less than a second, repeating that action slowly consumes a reader’s attention.  Given the amount of time many people spend reading web content, it is likely that they have conditioned themselves to be in this permanent state of distraction.

Yes, distractions are an unavoidable part of life.  Unfortunately, instead of learning to read in spite of distraction (like I do when my wife watches vampire TV shows like True Blood) people are teaching themselves to always be distracted.  Such people can rarely read a single book or article without reaching for a smartphone.

I recommend Carr’s book to all, regardless of how you feel towards modern technology.  As I mentioned in my previous essay, I am not advocating that everyone move off the grid.  Certain aspects of the internet are indispensable for me.  But as teachers, we cannot claim to understand the millennial generation without coming to grips with the effects of 24/7 connectivity on students’ daily lives.



Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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